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“Wouldn’t you know/
We been hurt, been down before/
Nigga, when our pride was low/
Lookin’ at the world like, ‘Where do we go?’/
Nigga, and we hate po-po/
Wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho’”
– Kendrick Lamar, “Alright”, To Pimp a Butterfly
Glancing at my current WordPress stats, I see that my current highest-read piece is my very negative review of the film The Hate U Give. Since the recent most used search term to find my site is “the hate u give negative reviews” and the like, I’m guessing that a lot of those visiting are racist White people who just generally hate a story about a Black kids being shot by White cops. I find that funny because my review clearly states that my problem with the flick is that it puts the blame on Black people.
If I wanted to see Black people blamed for cops killing them I’d go to Breitbart or Fox News. I don’t give a fuck that the film had a Black director or that it’s from a novel by a Black author, the film (written by a White woman) is inexcusable, and everyone Black who worked on the project should have known better. When I go into a story like that, I want to know more about the Black people whose lives were so carelessly snuffed out before their time. I want to know what they were thinking in their final moments before their existence was reduced to a hashtag. I want to know what they think about the world and their place in it.
I want a show like Kill Move Paradise, a tragi-comic meditation on four Black men’s souls ripped from their bodies far too soon. So easily discarded were their lives that each man’s arrival is marked with the sound of a toilet flushing. They then find themselves in a pristine white sewer of Purgatory, marked by drains they can’t reach or open, a dot matrix printer that spits out an endless stream of names, and a one wall/door. Outside the door is everything a Black man could dream about: a giant pool; fresh new Jordans; endless reruns of A Different World and Martin; purple drank; great food – “They got soul in there,” one of them says. Too bad, because the souls in this room aren’t going anywhere soon.
The souls in question are the conservative Isa (Edward Ewell) who found himself at the end of a noose, the preppy Grif (Lenard Jackson) killed in a “routine” traffic stop in front of his girlfriend, slick single-dad Daz (Tre’Vonne Bell) who was shot by police for selling bootleg DVDs, and teenage Tiny (15-year-old newcomer Dwayne Clay) who was shot by cops for playing with his toy gun in the street. Upon finding themselves in this Kafka-esque prison (I wrote in my notes that it reminded me of the Twilight Zone episode “Five Characters in Search of an Exit,” only for Grif to allude to that very episode minutes later), a paper airplane flies in instructing them to have as much fun as they can. The result is a comedic nightmare that gives nods to What’s Happening?, Negro spirituals, and slam poetry. The brothas fight, play, attempt escape, give up escape, and they ask us what they did that was so wrong to put them here.
Yes, us. The audience. This is the second show and night in a row that I’ve had the characters explicitly hold the audience accountable for all that went wrong. The first one (FaultLine Theater’s Caveman Play by Savannah Reich) had the characters trying to sell ancient humans on the gift of agriculture, but holding them responsible for the ecological danger they bring about. This one features our four Black men trying to entertain, inquire of, seduce, and hold accountable the (presumably) all-White audience that demanded their lives. They get no answers.
And that’s what makes Kill Move Paradise so great: there’s only one possible answer, but no one wants to say it out loud. Isa tried his best to follow the rules and not draw attention, but still found himself at the end of a rope; li’l Tiny – who still has braces and barely stands five feet, if that – was playing with a gun the color of a traffic cone, but was still victim of an America that sees Black men as “larger and more threatening”. This is a step up from some of Shotgun’s past stumbles covering race, including Susannah Martin’s notoriously racist production of The Events and James Ijames’ own misfire with White. This is a show that eschews badly-worded answers by making the answers painfully obvious (emphasis on the pain). Ijames and director Darryl Jones aptly channel the frustration of being a Black man in a world where deaths by police occur as frequently as weather reports. When Isa reads the printed names of dead Black folk, the others wail in pain, and our hearts with them.
Jones and Ijames not only have a great script to work with – most of the dialogue being spoken in direct sentences, even the slang – but also top-notch Shotgun talent behind the scenes. Upon walking in and seeing the aforementioned set, I immediately opened my program to find out whose work this was. I found the name Celeste Martore, who – if her sparse bio is any indication – seems to have created her first-ever set for this production! If that’s true, then her name and her sets are worth keeping an eye on in the future. The set is assisted by Theodore Hulsker’s projections (the sight of the water streaming from the top drain to the bottom was beyond beautiful), Stephanie Johnson’s lights (which occasionally turn on we the audience), and sounds by Elton Bradman & Dani Chaparro (who make even the sound of a flushing toilet sound terrifying). Excellent work all around.
Courtney Flores’s costumes are an interesting Progress of Man take on Black male fashion over the decades. Isa’s subtly-colored sweater-vest ensemble seems to have hints of casual wear from the ‘50s, with Grif’s slightly-brighter “nerdy” bowtie get-up suggesting private school attire from a pre-‘80s era. Daz is a bit of a curiosity: though he was murdered selling bootleg DVDs (which wouldn’t have been possible to make until the mid-2000s), his flat-top hairdo suggests ’89-’90, with his Cross Colors-esque shirt, red socks, and throwback Adidas suggesting ’92 at the latest (hey, I remember the fashion of my school days). Tiny is dressed in bright primary reds and blues, perhaps to suggest the bright future he should have had ahead of him. Lingering on that thought will just break my heart, so I’ll just say Flores’s choices all caught my eye.
There’s a moment near the end when young Tiny is spoken to by his companions as if they were still alive. They advise him never express any braggadocio, to always keep his hands visible, and to never be scary. The little man turns to us and asks simply, “Am I scary? [..] What is everyone so afraid of?” Sadly, they never get an answer from us, but there is a key moment of the show when solace is offered in the form of three simple words: “I got you.”
Kill Move Paradise is not only one of the best shows I’ve seen this year, it’s a reminder that every name we’ve seen in news reports and hashtags is connected to a life. More importantly, a soul. A soul that no one would listen to while they were alive. They just wanted to know that you see them. Because you can believe that they see you.
Kill Move Paradise is scheduled to run until the 4th of August at Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs roughly 1 hour and 10 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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